Do you like surprises? Not the kind where your friends jump out from behind the couch on your birthday… more like the kind where you assumed you had a situation figured out and then something else happens. Not necessarily better or worse than what you were expecting, just different. I love surprises. I’ve become something of a surprise junky in that every time I see an unknown play or a live band I intentionally don’t look them up. Having no expectation of a show means I’m surprised every time. MN Opera beat me at my own game this weekend. I thought I understood the scope of how I could be surprised on a stage but their production of Thaïs was surprising in incredible ways.
The show opens with a pretty low surprise level: a chorus of monks sings about the importance of staying secluded from the world and dedicating one’s life to God. They sing of their brother Athanaël and his struggle to resist his physical attraction to the greatest beauty in all the land, Thaïs, a courtesan. Not yet shocking, but at least intriguing… this story is setting up a conflict about piety vs. lust. Seclusion vs. participation. Caution vs. love. I’m slightly surprised.
Athanaël cannot get Thaïs out of his mind and, rather than being a good little monk he decides to set out on a quest to save her soul. He’ll go into the sinful city and test his piety for the sake of rescuing Thaïs. On the surface this is a classic cookie-cutter move that the hero takes it upon himself to rescue the damsel in distress who never asked to be rescued. But I’m surprised that the character is presented with more subtlety than that. Even while singing in French, it’s clear that Athanaël claims his motivations are righteous but obviously he’s doing this to spend time with her in any way he can. He’s obsessed, and he’s acting upon it in a way that might get out of his control.
So Athanaël walks the long walk into the sin-filled city of Alexandria. He holds an exaggerated view on the secular world and imagines it be a non-stop orgy with no regard for morality. SURPRISE! It’s absolutely a non-stop orgy. This is where I was truly startled for the first time: the composer wrote an INCREDIBLY long musical introduction to this place. For perhaps 20 minutes, the plot hits the pause button and we just revel in the den of sin. A backdrop of elaborate gold houses the sinners of Alexandria in a (fully-clothed) orgy that doesn’t show skin but also doesn’t leave much to the imagination. And before my very eyes, this opera stops being an opera and starts being a dance piece. Members of the company step out and start dancing with surprising mastery. Not just for a minute or two to introduce the sensuality of this world, but for 10-15 minutes as singing takes a backseat to dance as the primary means of expression.
I was surprised, but only seeing the tip of the surprise iceberg as the rest of the show interspersed the usual operatic singing and plot with extended sections of dance and visual spectacle. The Alexandria dancers returned, adorned in golden costumes as red rose pedals drifted down from above, all the while a thin veil of fog encapsulating everything in a magical hue. Later, a beautiful dance dream sequence entranced the audience with physical grace.
Back to the plot, it doesn’t get much more complicated. It’s about 1% the complexity of Mozart’s convoluted operas. I could summarize the bulk of Thaïs by saying:
“The guy goes to the wild orgy, meets a crazy cast of characters, there’s music, there’s dancing, but the protagonist subscribes to a higher morality and is not satisfied with this place as it is. He knows the courtesan is better than this frivolous life and he will do all he can to bring it to her. Then some crazy stuff happens and she dies while singing.”
SURPRISE! I wrote that paragraph describing the plot of Moulin Rouge, but it’s 90% the same as Thaïs so you get the idea.
From my seat in the audience, I spent too much time wishing this show had more plot. For at least the first half I was waiting for a reason to fall in love with Thaïs or Athanaël myself (rather than just being told how incredible they are). The show doesn’t have a huge amount of story or a huge amount of character development. This opera has glimpses of a beautiful plot and moments of compelling acting like when we see Thaïs alone for the first time and she expresses her feeling of meaningless frivolity with her life and a longing for something more profound. Also, peppered into the text are bits of existential philosophy like only the French could pull off:
“I shall remain a courtesan, believe in nothing and want nothing”
“Nothing is real but love, extend your arms to love”
“Nothing is real but life, nothing’s wise but madness”
“Nothing is real but life and the love of two beings”
But, in my opinion, this opera isn’t really about plot or singing. That’s such a big surprise that I wish I had known it before going. If you’re looking for an exquisite plot with arias you can whistle later, this isn’t the show. If you’re looking for a visually stunning dance piece with luxurious music and sexy characters, check it out. I wasn’t familiar with the Zenon Dance Company but after this masterful production I’ll look forward to seeing them again.
I overheard a very articulate audience member in the row in front of me tell his friends: “That whole dance sequence with the bright colors was worth the price of admission.” You’re not wrong, random stranger. You’re not wrong at all.